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Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Death row is still an exclusive club that’s populated by the poor

Athens Star
September 28, 1994
    Capital punishment means that people without capital get punishment, say opponents of the death penalty.
    While American gladiator O.J. Simpson will be spared a trip to California’s gas chamber if he is found guilty of murder, other prisoners who are poor and unknown will not be so fortunate.  Death row is still an exclusive club populated by the poor.
    Associated Press writer Bob Egelko on Sept. 6 quoted U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas as writing, “One searches in vain for the execution of any member of the affluent strata of this society.”  There are no wealthy football superstars on Death Row in America.  “I don’t know of any affluent people who have been sentenced to death,” legal scholar Walter Berns told AP reporter Egelko.
    Mistakes are made in the American system of justice, but when a person is wrongly executed, the mistake can never be rectified.  In a 1987 study of executions performed in this country between 1900 and 1985, it was found that at least 350 citizens were wrongly convicted and sentenced to death and 23 of the hapless innocent prisoners were executed.  There may be more wrongly convicted people sent to their doom because the state indeed makes mistakes.
    Right here in Georgia, three famous cases should show to all that the judicial system can make tragic errors that put innocent people on Death Row.
    Jerry Banks was released from prison in 1981 after serving six years behind bars for a murder he did not commit.  He spent five years on Death Row with the threat of execution hanging over his head like a sword of Damocles.  It took half a decade of work by lawyers and publicity about the case by crusading journalists like Tom Wicker of the New York Times to finally free Jerry Banks, but nothing could give back to Banks those years he spent in the shadow of death because of judicial incompetence.
    Earl Charles was released from a Georgia prison in 1978 after an attorney submitted evidence that Charles was working in Florida at the time that murders he was accused of were committed.  When a police detective corroborated the evidence, murder charges against Charles were dropped and he was released from jail.  Speaking at a prison reform rally in Atlanta shortly after his release, Charles told a cheering crowd that “all of us are living within the realm of a judicial snare capable of reaching out and capturing us.”
    Georgia’s judicial snare captured Gary Nelson in 1978.  Sentenced to death for the rape and murder of a child, he was represented by an attorney with no experience in capital cases.  Once again, evidence later came to light that the prisoner was innocent and he was released from jail after 11 long years on Death Row.
    While millions cry out for vengeance and demand the use of the electric chair, the rope, the gas chamber, the poison injection and the firing squad here in America, others question the value and use of the death penalty.  On Oct. 5, family members of murder victims will visit Athens to speak out against capital punishment.  Who has a better right to question capital punishment than the families of murder victims?  Their voices should be heard here in Athens and around the state.  For more information on the Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation visit to Athens, call 549-7058.  “The time to prevent crime is in the high chair, not the electric chair.”